Monday, February 1, 2016

Indianapolis-raised Frederic Chiu returns to town, with the American Pianists Association helping him stage a "Classical Smackdown"

In today's competitive environment, a concern for self-protection as well as self-promotion nudges classical music to consider competitive formats that reflect the mainstream culture.

Frederic Chiu put Prokofiev and Debussy head to head.
That's what Frederic Chiu has done with his Classical Smackdown recitals, one of which he brought to a Sunday afternoon recital at the Columbia Club, presented by the American Pianists Association, which awarded him a fellowship in 1985. He has done much to build on that success since, with a touch of notoriety at the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, when the jury's failure to pass him on to the finals occasioned an uproar. But an international concert career and hefty discography have amply compensated for what was widely perceived as an injustice at the time.

Sunday's competitive format, complete with ballots the audience was encouraged to fill out after each of three rounds, is designed to help sharpen perceptions of Claude Debussy and Sergei Prokofiev in their music for solo piano. Chiu noted that votes could be validly cast over a complete range of acquaintance with these composers and their music. He tabulates the results wherever he goes and publishes them on the Classical Smackdown website. It's an interactive approach to the traditional piano recital, something Franz Liszt, its pioneer, probably would have embraced.

I'm choosing to opt out of that kind of comparison here, though I have no doubt it's both useful and entertaining — and encourages closer listening than is the norm among many piano-recital audiences.

Chiu's Round 1 was designed, he said from the piano, for purposes of immersion and context. From Debussy, we heard "Suite Bergamasque,"  in which the Prelude exhibited sparkling color contrasts. Its solemn aspects, linked to a striding left hand suggesting something important to come, were highlighted. The Menuet that followed briskly kept uppermost its connections with dance; the well-known Clair de Lune featured chords lovingly sustained at phrase ends to enhance the melody. That gave way to the straightforward Passepied finale.

"Suite Bergamasque" was set against three movements from Prokofiev's ballet music for "Romeo and Juliet," one of them depicting revelry at the Capulet festivities, in Chiu's own arrangement. A brief respite from the vigor came with Friar Laurence's contemplative musings, only to be swept away in the Russian composer's bristling representation of the Montague-Capulet feud.

Chiu's all-out indulgence in Prokofiev's percussive side came out with "Diabolic Suggestions" in Round 2. It exhibits the kind of pulse-pounding virtuosity that is matched in a more variegated fashion by such a Debussy piece as "Jardins sous la pluie" (Gardens in the rain), an extroverted, picturesque part of "Estampes."

Along the way, Prokofiev's "Sarcasm" challenged the well-fed sensibilities of the audience, which had just finished brunch, with its brusque humor.

Round 3 brought forward two brief pieces by the featured composers in which they were contrasted as blatantly as possible. Debussy's "Reverie" exemplified what Chiu identified as "his freedom to compose for the beauty of the harmonies, just for the chord," without feeling compelled to give  harmonies a role to play in directing the music's forward motion.

Then came the blistering, barbed Toccata, op. 11, which draped Prokofiev in the mantle of enfant terrible as a bumptious conservatory student. Its thundering onrush is relieved mischievously near the end only to pick up speed and volume as it roars toward the double bar. Chiu's performance displayed his control and facility in music that needs both if it is to seem like something more than overpowering noise. And in fact, it came through as being just as musical as the soft-spoken "Reverie."

A check of the website today is sure to reveal the outcome of the APA event's balloting. Whoever won, the extraordinary display of characteristic pieces by two major composers came out on top.